What would you rather have? A Muzaffar Jang book as a paperback, for Rs 350? Or a Muzaffar Jang e-book for Rs 150 (or possibly less)? And yes, this isn’t merely a rhetorical question; I would like to know, because it’ll help me decide something of the path my writing—and publishing—should go.
Why am I asking? Mostly because of two interesting events I’ve attended over the past week. Last Sunday, February 16th, Amazon/Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) made a presentation, showing how easy and economical (not to mention convenient) self-publishing can be, both for the author as well as for the reader. And yesterday, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) hosted a seminar on Emerging Trends in Book Publishing. I was invited to be on the panel for the third session, which was on the author’s perspective, moderated by Urvashi Butalia and featuring Bhaskar Roy and Vikas Gupta on the panel along with me.
The first two sessions—on Emergence of New Models in Book Publishing, and Technology in Educational Publishing—were interesting. Since I’m not terribly clued into publishing and distribution and how this works, there was a lot here that was new to me. And some that wasn’t, such as the concept of Print on Demand (POD) or the role of content in distance education through digital media, although the insights offered into these were eye-openers for me.
But, to get to the session I was part of: The Future of Indian Publishing: The Author’s Perspective. Interestingly, of everybody on the panel, I was the only one who was not also a publisher. Which, of course, made what I had to say—in effect, a desire to break free of traditional publishing—tantamount to putting the cat among the pigeons.
What I had to say was this:
Firstly, I mostly (not always) write in very niche genres. Most people in India haven’t even heard of historical detective fiction or black humour, let alone having read it. (The reason why my publishers end up having to categorise the Muzaffar Jang series as ‘Crime/Thriller’—which isn’t a very appropriate categorisation, since historical detective fiction has aspects that typically don’t find a place in crime fiction in contemporary settings).
Secondly, because I write for such a niche market, sales figures for my books are never very high.
(Which is why I can understand why my publisher wouldn’t make much of a push to promote my books—is it really going to be worth their while to spend a large marketing budget on promoting books that only a select few are going to read? These aren’t mass-market books).
When you factor in the percentage of royalty I get—about 10%—what this basically means is: my writing, so far, has been almost solely a labour of love. I am still driven to tell stories. I still feel deeply passionate about what I write, and that is why I will continue to write in offbeat genres like historical fiction or black humour.
But am I content to not make a living out of writing? No.
In which case, self-publishing makes for an attractive alternative. I have gone past the stage of needing the credibility that being published by a traditional publisher brings (since traditional publishing requires, so to say, a ‘recognition’ that your work is good enough for a publisher to invest in). I know there will be a market, even if it’s limited, for my books.
Considering much of the audience at the seminar consisted of traditional publishers, I wasn’t surprised when I was faced with questions about whether Amazon/KDP can offer the sort of support—editorial, design, etc—that traditional publishing does (they can, in the form of freelancers); and why—if that was the case—I didn’t want to continue with a traditional publisher.
Am I being mercenary in admitting I don’t want my writing to be simply an expression of my love for stories? I don’t think so. It’s not as if I always write for money; I’ve written a lot of stories and articles gratis for various publications, including ones which were well able to have paid me. Also, if I was mercenary, I’d probably have jumped on to the bandwagon long back and tried my hand at genres that have proved popular in India.
It’s just that I’m thinking of taking a new approach to how my books are published. Perhaps I will continue to write and publish some books the traditional way. Some, perhaps in other genres (possibly under a pseudonym?) I will self-publish.
Will there be any takers? I hope so, because (I feel) books are, at their very core, the coming together of writer and reader. If, out of the process of publishing that book, both the writer and the reader benefit (the latter since e-books are both cheaper as well as more convenient—plus, they take up less space), where’s the harm? Paperbound books are, as far as I’m concerned, not going to fall out of circulation any time in the near future. But it is time for us, readers and writers, in India (which admittedly lags behind the West as far as the penetration and popularity of e-books is concerned), to sit up and take notice. And be willing to expand our horizons.